How to master the overhead press for big arms and quick shoulder gains

Never mind bicep curls; learn how to perform overhead press for REAL arm gains

overhead press: how to
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Learning how to perform overhead press correctly is a key component of getting big arms, but it's far more than that. This compound exercise – sometimes also called military press or standing shoulder press – will not only build shoulder definition but will also enhance the size of your triceps and even work your pecs, too.

The overhead press is part of the Big 5, a set of compound exercises that gives a full-body workout. (opens in new tab)

There are many benefits of including compound exercises in your workout routine: for one, doing these will burn more calories and will make you leaner. They are also great to increase overall strength and building functional muscles as well. Apart from making your arms stronger, the overhead press also helps strengthen your core too.

Stay safe!

One thing to keep in mind when working with large weights is that form is more important than stacking plates up on your barbell. Not only it is less likely that you will get injured if you performing the exercises, using a good form will also work the correct muscles too. 

A good way to avoid injury is to get a training buddy who can keep an eye on you while you perform your sets. When you do your overhead presses, you basically move heavy weights in front and over your head. Always check your surroundings and make sure you can perform the whole range of motion without obstruction.

And always, always warm up before exercising and make sure you don't push your muscles too much. Rest is equally as important as the exercise itself.

overhead press: how to

Move you head out of the way as you push the bar up

(Image credit: Future)

How to perform an overhead press

To perform a standing barbell overhead press, load the appropriate plates onto each end of the barbell (the same on both ends) and secure the weights with the collars. Then, pick up the barbell from the ground using an overhand grip and rest it on the top of your chest. Legs are shoulder-width, core engaged.

When you press the bar up, it should move in a straight vertical line. In order for it to do just that, you will need to move your head back and forth a bit as the bar passes in front of it. Keep your core engaged all the way through the motion and don't arch your back, that will lead to lower back pain (and injuries in general).

If you are in the gym, it helps to do some reps with only the barbell and watch your form in the mirror. There is no shame in trying to perfect your form and you definitely won't impress anyone performing exercises with a bad form and injuring yourself.

Standing barbell overhead press: variations and alternatives

You can also check out our article on the best shoulder exercises for inspiration.

  • Dumbbell overhead press
  • Double kettlebell overhead press
  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press
  • Push press
  • Pike pushup (bodyweight alternative)

On recovery and nutrition

To avoid any injuries and to help recovery, stretch after every strength training session (and after every cardio session as well). Foam rollers can be found in most gyms and you can buy them on Amazon too, a quick and inexpensive way to massage tired muscles.

Resistance bands are not only great for workouts (see lunges above) but they are also an effective way to stretch your hamstrings after you did your squats.

You might want to keep an eye out for your protein intake as well. If you are doing strength training, try taking in around 2 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 70 kg, you'll need to eat 140 grams of protein per day. Humans haven't got protein reserves, so you have to continuously take protein in throughout the day. 

And make sure you drink plenty of water as well. A decent gym water bottle doesn't cost all that much.

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Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar and Fit&Well, and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym reviews.